Zoning dispute looms with new school deal

By Ronda Kaysen

The recent announcement of plans for a new pre-K-8 elementary school for the East Side of Lower Manhattan has some West Side parents grumbling. Although the school has yet to be zoned — or an official site secured, for that matter — Tribeca and Battery Park City children may find themselves competing for seats with East Side students who will, in all likelihood, have priority, say officials close to the project.

Although pleased to see a new school on the horizon for Downtown, some West Side parents remain skeptical it will resolve their middle school crowding problem. The West Side, according to the Census, has experienced a population explosion in the past 20 years, with the population ballooning from 15,918 people living south of Canal St. and west of Park Row in 1980 to a staggering 34,420 people residing in the area in 2000 — of those, there are 6,280 families. The Financial District and Seaport area have also been growing fast with the residential conversion of office buildings, but the number of new residents is less than in Tribeca and Battery Park City.

The West Side has the bulk of Downtown’s elementary schools with P.S. 89 in Battery Park City, and P.S. 150 and P.S. 234 a few blocks away in Tribeca. The new school will most likely accommodate East Side kids, who do not have a zoned school in the Financial District and South Street Seaport.

“Our district is school-heavy on the West Side, not on the East Side,” said Paul Hovitz, chair of Community Board 1’s youth committee. “The idea of putting an elementary school on the East Side made sense — it addresses the desire of local parents to have their kids have a school to go to from kindergarten through the 8th grade, which is wonderful. Now we need to address the issue of where the West Side parents are going to send their kids.”

Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1 and one of the key negotiators of the agreement, indicated that West Side kids will not have first priority at the new school. “There is already a middle school on the West Side,” Wils told Downtown Express. “If the youth committee [of C.B. 1] wants to work on that issue, they can do that.” Wils spent 15 years working to bring a new school to Downtown. Although “a little disappointed” by the final agreement, Wils maintains, “We got the best choice for the community.”

City Councilmember Alan Gerson reached the agreement for the new school with Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff after months of negotiations. He indicated that P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 children may not directly benefit from the new school, although a new school Downtown may mitigate some of the crowding issues. “Having another school Downtown will alleviate the crowding pressures on I.S. 89 and P.S. 234,” he said. “The commitment is to assure that all Lower Manhattan kids have a Lower Manhattan option.”

The first choice for the school site is 250 Water St. in the South Street Seaport Historic District. According to the agreement, the city is required to make reasonable efforts to find a school site south of the Brooklyn Bridge and east of Broadway, contingent on getting $25 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The city has agreed to contribute $44 million of its Deptartment of Education capital budget and it makes half the appointments to the L.M.D.C. board. The new school will most likely be completed sometime in 2006 or 2007.

“This K-8 will be a school for the East Side, which leaves us without a zoned middle school,” said Thomas Goodkind, a Battery Park City resident and C.B. 1 member. “We have spent a lot of time and energy trying to make sure that P.S. 234 doesn’t get overcrowded. There has been no time and energy devoted to getting Tribeca and Battery Park City kids one seat in a nearby zoned middle school.”

In recent years, overcrowded elementary and middle schools have plagued the west side of Lower Manhattan. P.S. 234 at Greenwich and Chambers Sts. has the worst overcrowding problem in all of Lower Manhattan with the school at 122 percent capacity. I.S. 89 in Battery Park City, which is not a zoned school, does not guarantee space for neighborhood children who graduate from its K-5 school, P.S. 89. The only zoned school for local students is the Simon Baruch School at E. 21st St. between First and Second Aves. Deterred by the high costs of private schools, many parents opt to send their kids to one of the competitive testing schools, such as Lab School for Collaborative Studies — also a haul on W. 17th St.

“I’ve seen many, many parents move out of our neighborhood because the schooling isn’t complete for our neighborhood. This is true only for our little area,” said Goodkind. “If you have two working parents, you need to leave,” he added, referring to the dilemma many parents face when deciding how to transport their children daily to middle schools located far from their neighborhood.

Goodkind would like to see I.S. 89 zoned for the neighborhood. “It’s not a neighborhood school,” he said of the middle school. “The kids from outside our neighborhood have the disadvantage of not being from the neighborhood and not testing as well.”

Last November, 450 parents from P.S. 89 sent a letter to Superintendent Peter Heaney, the superintendent for Region 9, requesting that the city, among other things, zone I.S. 89 for neighborhood kids. Heaney has yet to respond to the community’s request.

A spokesperson for Heaney said her boss would not comment.

Councilmember Gerson is also working to secure I.S. 89 as a zoned middle school, another indication that the new East Side school may not accommodate West Side kids. “I feel very strongly that — and I’ve expressed this to the Dept. of Ed. — I.S. 89 needs to become a zoned primary school for Lower Manhattan,” he said. “It’s outrageous that kids who live in the area are not admitted to the school.”

“It would be nice to zone I.S. 89, but so far that hasn’t happened,” said Wils.

Rezoning I.S. 89 will have complications of its own. “You set up a situation of overcrowding I.S. 89, even if only half of the kids from P.S. 89 went there,” said Hovitz. With 430 kids enrolled at P.S. 89, the lower school is significantly larger than its 309-student middle school. If I.S. 89 is converted to a zoned school, it would be required to accept all eligible students, in effect forcing the school into an overcrowding situation. “At this point it would not really be viable,” said Hovitz. “I can really understand why the Dept. of Ed. is loath to change the zoning for our community solely because we graduate too many kids, even given the number of kids who choose other testing schools.”

Overcrowding is not a problem exclusive to the West Side. Parents from the neighboring I.S. 126, at 80 Catherine St., have a heavily crowded middle school of their own and have their eye on the new school. “I would definitely be interested in being able to be a part of that,” said Wanda Perez, treasurer of the school’s P.T.A. at P.S./I.S. 126. According to Perez, the middle school crowding problem last year was “really, really bad.”

“Our sixth through eighth grades are definitely overcrowded,” said Susan Goldberg, the school’s assistant principal. Some of the middle school classes — which account for half of the school’s 800 students — have as many as 34 students in them. “It’s always nice [for parents and kids] to have other options,” she added.

Hovitz does not think students living in the Smith Houses — many of whom attend I.S. 126 — north of the possible school site at 250 Water St. will be interested in the new school. “I don’t know that this new school will necessarily draw from the Smith Houses since P.S. 126 is a better school for them,” he said, noting the school’s excellent record and the close proximity of another alternative, P.S. 124 in Chinatown.

“P.S. 126 doesn’t have an overcrowding problem,” said Gerson when asked if he thought kids from the neighboring school might want to attend the new school.

Despite all speculation, the zoning parameters will need to be hashed out and the catchment area for the new school has not been decided by anyone. “The details of the zoning has to be worked out through a public process,” said Gerson. “We have the assurance that there will be a school, but there’s a lot more work that has to happen to make sure it’s the right school that serves this community.”


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